One of the very first films to last longer than a couple minutes and tell a complete story was “The Great Train Robbery,” a hugely influential 12-minute adventure that dazzled audiences way back in 1903. Its technical and narrative innovations have since been improved upon, but one thing has held steady: Audiences still love criminals. Sure, we generally like to see them punished in the end (and the old Hollywood Production Code used to insist on it), but in the meantime we delight in their exploits, vicariously enjoying their unrestrained, uncivilized behavior, and secretly kind of hoping they get away with it.
But we occasionally see more realistic depictions of the criminal life, too. The final season of “The Sopranos” made the point that for all the luxuries he enjoys, Tony Soprano has the threat of imminent arrest or death hanging over his head, and he can never escape it. In Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies,” about the 1933-34 manhunt for John Dillinger, the notorious bank robber and murderer lives the high life while on the lam and cracks jokes with adoring journalists when he’s arrested, but he never truly gets to relax and enjoy himself. This is no way to live. He dreams of pulling a heist that will yield enough money for him to flee the country and retire, but bullets from the guns of three G-Men made sure that never happened.
“Public Enemies,” an impeccably produced crime drama that doesn’t trade intelligence for excitement and offers plenty of both, largely follows the traditional gangster-movie format. Played with understated charisma by Johnny Depp, Dillinger relishes his lifestyle. He sees being re-incarcerated just eight weeks after finishing a nine-year prison term as a minor setback, and breaks out immediately. He flirts with beautiful women, and usually gets them, too. Asked about his tastes by one such object of his affection, he says, “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you. What else do you need to know?”
His opponent is a dogged (they’re always dogged, aren’t they?) federal officer named Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), a real person whose wimpy, square name just happens to be perfect for a guy whose job is to spoil John Dillinger’s fun. Purvis, like Tommy Lee Jones in “The Fugitive,” has no agenda other than punishing wrongdoers for their wrong deeds. If Purvis has a wife, a family, a hobby, or anything else suggesting he is an ordinary human being, the movie doesn’t show us. He’s more like a Terminator, the immovable object that the irresistible force called Dillinger must eventually run into.
Knowing how it will end doesn’t diminish the fun of seeing it play out, though, and Mann has no compunctions about presenting Dillinger’s exploits as slick, populist entertainment. Dillinger’s bank robberies are smooth, even chivalrous (he tells a customer who has emptied his own pockets, “I’m not here for your money, I’m here for the bank’s money”), and his escapes from police custody are clever. On the rare occasion that he must enter a courtroom, he’s aided hilariously by a blustery, silver-tongued lawyer (Peter Gerety) who excels at defending criminals who were caught red-handed. In his off hours, Dillinger sleeps with a beautiful coat-check girl played by Marion Cotillard. Yes sir, the life of John Dillinger certainly does seem to have its perks, right up until a well-coordinated, edge-of-your-seat plan to apprehend him bears fruit.
Depp’s performance is less flashy than most of what he’s done in recent years, proving he’s not just an oddball; he can be calibrated to do normal things, too. But you can also see in his portrayal of Dillinger why people would have liked the outlaw for his magnetic personality. (It must be said, though, that we still don’t know anything about Dillinger’s motives, influences, or background.) Bale, on the other hand, provides balance as the staid, Boy Scout-y Purvis, at one point actually carrying a swooning woman in his arms (one of Mann’s few over-the-top moments). Just as he did in “Heat,” Mann keeps his two superstar leads apart for the vast majority of the film, and what little screen time they do share isn’t important. It’s a testament to how engrossing the film is that we don’t come away feeling cheated at not seeing more Depp-Bale interaction.
Much has been made of Mann’s decision to shoot the picture on high-definition video rather than film, a rather common thing nowadays except when it comes to period pieces, which still tend to favor a glossy, old-fashioned look. The thinking has been that to see the 1930s photographed in a sharp, exceedingly realistic style will be jarring to the viewer. I had the opposite reaction: The clarity and depth of the images (shot by frequent Mann collaborator Dante Spinotti) drew me in closer to the film. Dillinger’s facial creases are visible in tight shots, the texture of his jacket so well defined you can almost touch it. This isn’t the cheap, handheld digital video you see in a lot of indie films, either. This is the good stuff. Mann is moving the medium forward the same way Edwin S. Porter did with his train-robbery picture more than a century ago, and in the process exhibiting the same fascination with crooks.
B+ (2 hrs., 23 min.; )